Politics of Attack

Today’s New York Times lead editorial echoes what I’ve been thinking about the ugly turn in the presidential campaign. I’m not going to try to say it better, so I’ll just quote the whole piece.  (I hope the lawyers don’t come after me.)

It is a sorry fact of American political life that campaigns get ugly, often in their final weeks. But Senator John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin have been running one of the most appalling campaigns we can remember.

They have gone far beyond the usual fare of quotes taken out of context and distortions of an opponent’s record — into the dark territory of race-baiting and xenophobia. Senator Barack Obama has taken some cheap shots at Mr. McCain, but there is no comparison.

Despite the occasional slip (referring to Mr. Obama’s “cronies” and calling him “that one”), Mr. McCain tried to take a higher road in Tuesday night’s presidential debate. It was hard to keep track of the number of times he referred to his audience as “my friends.” But apart from promising to buy up troubled mortgages as president, he offered no real answers for how he plans to solve the country’s deep economic crisis. He is unable or unwilling to admit that the Republican assault on regulation was to blame.

Ninety minutes of forced cordiality did not erase the dismal ugliness of his campaign in recent weeks, nor did it leave us with much hope that he would not just return to the same dismal ugliness on Wednesday.

Ms. Palin, in particular, revels in the attack. Her campaign rallies have become spectacles of anger and insult. “This is not a man who sees America as you see it and how I see America,” Ms. Palin has taken to saying.

That line follows passages in Ms. Palin’s new stump speech in which she twists Mr. Obama’s ill-advised but fleeting and long-past association with William Ayers, founder of the Weather Underground and confessed bomber. By the time she’s done, she implies that Mr. Obama is right now a close friend of Mr. Ayers — and sympathetic to the violent overthrow of the government. The Democrat, she says, “sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.”

Her demagoguery has elicited some frightening, intolerable responses. A recent Washington Post report said at a rally in Florida this week a man yelled “kill him!” as Ms. Palin delivered that line and others shouted epithets at an African-American member of a TV crew.

Mr. McCain’s aides haven’t even tried to hide their cynical tactics, saying they were “going negative” in hopes of shifting attention away from the financial crisis — and by implication Mr. McCain’s stumbling response.

We certainly expected better from Mr. McCain, who once showed withering contempt for win-at-any-cost politics. He was driven out of the 2000 Republican primaries by this sort of smear, orchestrated by some of the same people who are now running his campaign.

And the tactic of guilt by association is perplexing, since Mr. McCain has his own list of political associates he would rather forget. We were disappointed to see the Obama campaign air an ad (held for just this occasion) reminding voters of Mr. McCain’s involvement in the Keating Five savings-and-loan debacle, for which he was reprimanded by the Senate. That episode at least bears on Mr. McCain’s claims to be the morally pure candidate and his argument that he alone is capable of doing away with greed, fraud and abuse.

In a way, we should not be surprised that Mr. McCain has stooped so low, since the debate showed once again that he has little else to talk about. He long ago abandoned his signature issues of immigration reform and global warming; his talk of “victory” in Iraq has little to offer a war-weary nation; and his Reagan-inspired ideology of starving government and shredding regulation lies in tatters on Wall Street.

But surely, Mr. McCain and his team can come up with a better answer to that problem than inciting more division, anger and hatred.

Political Illogic 101

In Philosophy 101 one of the first things we teach is logic, along with logical fallacies. Here’s the big one we’re starting to see in this presidential campaign, as well as in some comments on this very blog (especially regarding Barack’s Mother): guilt by association. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ” Guilt by association is a version of the ad hominem fallacy in which a person is said to be guilty of error because of the group he or she associates with. ” In response to my Barack’s Mother post, one person noted that Obama’s mother once went to a school where she was taught by a couple of Communists.  Merde!  I have no idea if this is true.  But for the sake of argument, suppose it is.  So what?  The implication is that this association was more than coincidental but said something sinister about her parents’ character (in sending her to that school) and about the kind of person she would become.

My seventh grade teacher was a right-wing kook who imagined Communist conspiracies around every corner.  Does this make me a right-wing kook?

At a meeting in 1996 attended by about eight people, I sat next to Karl Rove.  I didn’t stand up and denounce him and disassociate myself from him and all the nefarious things he would later do. Even more “damning,” he and I were both occasional guest hosts of a public affairs program in Austin, TX. Does this make me like Karl Rove? Or does it mean that I moved in some of the same circles as he did and was being polite?

As we enter the final month of the campaign, we’re already starting to get this kind of ridiculous, ugly politics fueled by this logical fallacy.  Palin, the attack dog, is already putting it out there: Obama knew Ayers; Ayers was a terrorist; therefore Obama is somehow tainted, suspicious, and dangerous.  Any freshman college student can spot the fallacy.  Will the American people?

Notice that the fallacy is employed to divert attention from the real issues.  There is plenty to talk about: the effects of deregulation, the economy, foreign policy, energy, to name a few; and there are real differences in the two tickets’ positions.  Can we talk about those please?

It’s also employed to provide cover for racist fears.  How many times have I heard people say, “I just don’t trust him” even when they cannot articulate a single reason for this fear?  Guilt-by-association provides a pseudo-justification for distrust, a way of avoiding examining our own psyches and complicated histories.

The Real Political Impasse

I had lunch yesterday with my colleague Sara Cobb and one of the things we talked about was how to theorize what happens when people with radically different worldviews begin to fathom the other.  She and I are both familiar with successful processes that bring about this change, but we wondered aloud about how to understand theoretically what is happening. I ventured that one thing that seems to happen is that one or more parties will begin to see something amiss in their previous perceptions. The other, who at first seemed to be, for example, someone with alien values and beliefs, suddenly comes into focus as someone with understandable motivations and aspirations. Another thing that seems to happen is that one party will begin to realize that there is a differend at work in the conversation, that a term is being used in totally different ways by the different parties. Part of the task of working through an impasse is to recognize the impasse.  In both examples, parties need not get to agreement on solutions; change begins to happen when they start to see the flaws in their initial perceptions.

In the midst of this election, there’s no shortage of impasses between worldviews. As a holder of a blue worldview, the red one looks foreign.  I can’t help but think that a supporter of the McCain-Palin ticket is either a creationist or willing to look the other way for the sake of other conservative values, perhaps faith, a free market, apple pie?  (The free market part isn’t flying well this week when the Republican executive branch is nationalizing industries!) I know several McCain-Palin supporters who oppose Palin’s extreme views, but have McCain placards in their yard anyway, including two of my gay neighbors.  What are they thinking?  I don’t want to ask, because I want to stay friendly with these neighbors.  (The other 98% of my neighborhood has Obama placards, so the McCain supporters are being plenty brave.) But I really want to know.  I’d like to talk about it.

I have had one real conversation with a conservative, Catholic friend.  She says she doesn’t like Republicans these days, but she just doesn’t trust Obama either.  She’ll vote for McCain, because he’s “her people.” She cares about faith, and she cares about science. She’s pro-life, but she also supports choice. Obama’s not “her people”; she just doesn’t trust him.

I want to ask, but I let the conversation end, what makes someone “your people”?  What are the values you care about? Who best embodies them?  One conservative blogger has come around and decided that McCain’s no conservative, so he’s going for Obama.  Check out his blog here.

The labels get in the way.  The issues, the things we care about, need to come to the fore. And we need to find ways to talk across all these differences about the things that matter to us. We need to talk first about what kind of country we want to have, and only after that can we have a real conversation about this election.

Pause over this…

Not so long ago it looked like we were in for a vicious general election. The Republican candidates kept trying to one-up each other on how anti-immigrant and unwelcoming they could be. The Democrats were put on the defensive about not being vitriolic enough. It seemed like we were in for an election that was all about why we should bar the door against foreigners and strangers.

As the Democrats, pulled along by Edwards, moved more toward worrying about  poverty and those in need, the Republicans seemed to move even further right than Bush in blaming those in need for their own fate. As the divisions escalated, we seemed to be in for a hell of a divisive fight.

The amazing thing now seems to be that the American people wanted none of this crap. We have the evidence: the Republicans chose the most conciliatory, pro-immigration, anti-ideological of its candidates. The Democrats rejected the party standard-bearer in favor of a new voice wanting to reach out across ideological differences. It is actually conceivable, though maybe not advisable, that each nominee might choose as a V.P. candidate someone from the other party. And it is quite likely that they’ll even share the same ride to their debates. Has that ever happened?

I am not saying that McCain and Barama are alike. They are as different in policy means and goals as any two candidates could be. As a Texan, I’d vote for a yellow dog before I voted for McCain. And I hope any other Democrat would do the same.

What I am stunned by is what the voice of the American people seems to have uttered: we want candidates who are so willing to solve problems that they will cross party lines; we want a politics that will bring people together; we want a politics that is welcoming, conscientious, and accountable to citizens rather than lobbies.

Just as there were many themes that Obama and Clinton shared, there are many that Obama and McCain share. There’s plenty that puts them apart, but we should take time to pause now and marvel at this new turn of events and what it says about what the American people want: a different kind of politics, a country that is welcoming and a model for the kinds of values that have sparked admiration around the world. Part of the credit for this climatic change goes indeed to McCain and Obama, but I’d like to suggest that the bulk of it goes to the American people, fed up with politics as usual, ready for a different kind of politics.

The Better Candidate

What a delight to vote yesterday for the candidate I liked the best rather than, as in years past, the candidate that I didn’t dislike more than the other.

Obama’s huge success in Virginia, a state with an open primary, seems to show that independents are drawn to Obama more than they are to McCain. Note how tight the race was between Huckabee and McCain. I suspect this was because conservatives rallied around Huckabee and many moderates and independents voted in the Democratic primary.  If it ends up being a race between Clinton and McCain, the conservatives may come out to vote against Clinton.  But if it’s a race between Obama and McCain, the conservatives may stay home, the independents may go with Obama, and the Democrats will finally take back the White House.